Haunting and evocative project examines wartime childhood trauma

“Tamam,” © Magnus Wennman. Reproduced with permission

The Museum of Dreams is an original and deeply compelling hub for exploring dream life and its social and political significance. “We collect and creatively work with dreams from the historical record and provide a platform for collaborative storytelling projects,” the website reads.

York University Faculty of Education Professor Aparna Mishra Tarc has contributed to this endeavour, curated by Professor Sharon Sliwinski of Western University and funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Tim Hetherington Trust, Western University, the Freud Museum London and Centre de la Roseraie. Her contribution, “A Child is Dreaming” (2017), is an illustrated essay about children who have been traumatized by war and how this trauma plays out in dreams.

Tarc explains the importance of dreaming in a child’s world: “Children’s dreams universally relay and prophesize a dire message about their uneasy relation to adults and the external world and their fears that both might present them with harm.”

Images and prose work seamlessly together, create tremendous impact

Tarc’s essay centres largely around the work of Swedish photographer and photo activist Magnus Wennman, whose images are embedded into the essay. She analyzes and articulates, in prose, what Wennman has put on film.

Aparna Mishra Tarc (left); Magnus Wennman (right). His image reproduced with permission of World Press Photo
Aparna Mishra Tarc (left); Magnus Wennman (right). His image reproduced with permission of World Press Photo

“A Child is Dreaming” is a success on two levels:

  1. It perfectly encapsulates the museum’s idea of dreams as “a springboard for articulating the things we have trouble expressing, the stories we struggle to voice.”
  2. It illustrates how superbly crafted prose combined with images – children’s drawings about war, embedded films and photographs – can work together as a seamless, cohesive and new piece of art that’s greater than the sum of its parts, and that holds within it tremendous potency and impact.
“Maha,” a five-year-old Iraqi child, © Magnus Wennman. Reproduced with permission 
“Maha,” a five-year-old Iraqi child, © Magnus Wennman. Reproduced with permission

“Tiny acts of history” offer glimpse into war from a child’s eyes

“A Child is Dreaming” opens with a nine-year-old girl, the subject of Wennman’s short film Fatima’s Drawings. Fatima is a Syrian child who has been repeatedly awoken by overhead nighttime bombing that has left her sleepless and fearful in waking life. The film illustrates the young girl’s way of expressing her fears through visual testimony – drawing.

“Through no fault of their own, these ordinary children are born and raised in hostile conditions of adult carnage and cruelty,” Tarc explains.

Fatima’s story is one of violent exile. With her mother and her two siblings, she fled from the Syrian city of Idlib. Following several years in a Lebanese refugee camp, described as unbearable, they travelled to Libya where they boarded an overcrowded boat – a rubber dingy with a sail – seeking to flee their situation and find a new and permanent home.

On this journey, a woman gave birth to a stillborn child and the baby was thrown overboard. “I watched as two men threw the baby into the sea,” Fatima says. This becomes both the subject of her dreams, although she makes no implicit connection, and her drawings.

Stills from “Fatima’s Drawings,” © Magnus Wennman. Reproduced with permission
Stills from Fatima’s Drawings, © Magnus Wennman. Reproduced with permission

“Though we cannot see it, Fatima is a child indelibly marked by the violence of war. Yet, one symbolic activity of childhood betrays the horror of Fatima’s inner life – the act of drawing,” Tarc explains.

She believes the girl’s dream silently accuses. “The nightmare holds adults accountable without ever directly accusing anyone of wrongdoing,” Tarc writes. She also believes that Fatima’s statement, “It was not good,” uttered three times in the short film, holds power; it “conveys a great deal about deadly history, war, and its irreparable effects on a childhood, on existence, on a people, on a world.”

Work provides shocking glimpses of unlivable conditions

Tarc also considers the breadth of Wennman’s work, and his works prior to Fatima’s story. For example, his photo essay “Where the Children Sleep,” features startling images of children searching for sleep during wartime. Tarc aptly describes these images as “shocking glimpses of the unlivable conditions of people fleeing homelands” and “bare family life in times of societal ruin.”

She homes in on one image from Wennman’s photo essay: “Maha,” a five-year-old girl who, with her family, fled their village outside Mosul, Iraq, in fear of ISIS. In the photograph, Maha lays on a dirty mattress in the overcrowded transit centre in a refugee camp. “I do not dream and I’m not afraid of anything anymore,” she says, demonstrating an unusual fortitude, although her eyes betray the depth of her losses.

“Tamam,” © Magnus Wennman. Reproduced with permission
“Tamam,” a five-year-old girl in Azraq, Jordan, © Magnus Wennman. Reproduced with permission

“Amir” is another image from Wennman’s series. He is a 20-month-old boy, born a refugee. His mother believes he was traumatized in the womb, since he has never spoken a single word. “Tamam,” a five-year-old girl in Azraq, Jordan, is afraid of her pillow – the aftermath of nighttime air raids.

Project designed to spur international community to action

Tarc hopes that her work will motivate the world community, and international citizens, to collectively act in the interests of children and more readily protect children in war zones.

This press for change is beautifully articulated in the end of “A Child is Dreaming:”

Part of our responsibility as adults is to tend to the inner lives of children whose dreams of a peaceful, war-free existence are shattered by the memory of dropped bombs and dead babies. Built from the tiny acts of history, Fatima’s dream exceeds the personal work of mourning. The child’s dream-work enters social and political life as a plea to attend to our primal fears of being dropped out of human existence before and after the bombs fall. We need all of our human creativity, all our dreams—good and bad—to put history back into the picture.

To read and view “A Child is Dreaming,” go to the website. To learn more about the Museum of Dreams, visit the website. For more information on Tarc, visit her faculty profile page.

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By Megan Mueller, manager, research communications, Office of the Vice-President Research and Innovation, York University, muellerm@yorku.ca